Riding out the storm


I began sailing in 1973. I attended sailing school, learned how to sail and purchased a 27-foot sloop on which I made frequent mistakes.

Thankfully, the boat was solid, the seas were mostly kind, and so I didn’t kill myself through inexperience.

As the years passed, I continued to log miles under my boat’s keel. With each ocean mile, my hand on the tiller grew steadier, my knowledge of wind and weather more intimate, my ability to handle my boat and trim its sails grew and gradually, sailing began to flow like the undulations of a beautiful ocean wave.

These days, I think of my journeys at sea often. I suppose I see it as an analogy to what we are experiencing in Southeast Michigan right now. In my head, the lessons are loud: in order to do well, in bad weather and in dangerous conditions, you need a solid, stable, well-built boat, a captain with a steady hand under tough conditions, and a willing and able crew ready to give one hand for the boat whilst hanging on with the other.

Under such conditions, the boat and its crew weather almost anything.

So what is my point here, on my grocery blog? Who am I, but a local grocer, a man at the helm of one company in a nation of thousands of companies? I am a father among millions of fathers. I am a man among countless men. I am neither exceptional nor unique. Lest I sound preachy with my metaphors and my musings, let me say that in the midst of a busy day and a tough economy I cannot help but think of the sea, to learn from my experiences in its strong embrace.

Riding breaking, white-capped waves, steering over and around the ones that can destroy the boat and then back on course again once danger has passed. It’s a ready metaphor. Metaphors float all around me, all day long, and if I’ve built any momentum on this blog at all it’s that I want to connect with you my readers, because we are one and the same. My metaphors can become yours or maybe you’ll share yours with me.

So the metaphor of a boat captain? Sure, I am captaining the Hiller’s boat and I am hoping that in some way I can turn Hiller’s into some kind of a local lifeboat for us all. But I know I cannot really save anybody except maybe the people who work for me, maybe my family, maybe myself. Or maybe I have no power at all and just believe in the stories of the skies and the ocean that I have learned to read quite well. And maybe I know – and impart to everyone who wants to listen – that the lessons of the past are the building blocks of the future.

I’ve seen some very stormy times at sea, days when the mackerel skies and mares’-tail clouds foretold something frightening that was on its way and unavoidable. I’ve been lucky more than once.

And yet sometimes I prefer the storm to the calm. Charcoal-painted skies, a ripping breeze, twilight-blue as far as the eye can see. In the toughest times it is the sea that calls me, that takes me away from my desk of piled papers and my hometown’s economic woes. And just when I sink into a dreamy memory of a smooth sail, I remember that even the smoothest sails can turn deadly on a moment and either you’re prepared to survive or you’re not.

When my eldest son Justin turned 21, he and I took off on a little sailboat named Cyrano that I specially built for the occasion. We spent a month riding the seas between Florida, the Bahamas and the Keys.

On a day dark as night, we encountered some very rough weather–but by the time it happened, we had been together for a long time, we trusted the boat, we trusted each other and everything worked out fine. The storm passed while we rode with the waves side by side rather than fight them or each other.

Hiller’s is not just a grocery store; we are a metaphorical lifeboat riding out the storm of this time until we can once again see gentler seas for miles around.

Anything can happen when you’re caught in stormy seas. But if you begin with a sturdy boat, a crew of people determined to survive and maybe a few dozen bottles of rum, you’re damn well going to get through just about anything.

It’s the boat AND the knowledge, sturdy and well-built, that determine the outcome. A well-found sailboat, skippered by an old sea fox whose mind brims with knowledge from hundreds of days at sea, will weather any storm.

The ocean hasn’t changed.   In the worst conditions, we let the boat carry us through the crests and the falls. We do it because we are not an enemy of the sea; we are part of it.


Riding out the storm — 11 Comments

  1. I received your most recent flyer today. It has a very different look from any of the other grocery flyers in today’s mail. I sat down and read it from cover to cover!!! Could it be that there is a local business with a conscience?? Is it possible that the CEO and owner of a business is concerned with more than lining his own pockets?? In recent days, I’ve become overwhelmed with tales of extreme greed: bankers who took billions from we modest living tax payers while they outfitted their offices with million dollar remods…and sent their million dollar bonuses off shore for safe keeping from our government’s eyes…
    Does the owner of Hiller’s care enough about all the families whose livlihoods depend on today’s sales??
    WOW…it appears to this family, that someone cares enough to show me in his ad, the Michigan based companies and the number of families impacted by purchases made.
    You may think that I am living under a rock, but I shopped in your store for the very first time last month. I will tell you something that will shock and amaze you. I intend to CHANGE MY Shopping habits, and begin to shop at your store. In doing this, I know that I will make a difference to a family that is just like mine.
    thank you Hiller family.

  2. I saw Jim Hiller on channel 7’s news the other day. I have been a Hiller shopper for over 17 years. One of the reasons I like Hiller is the quality of the their products. When I learned that they promote Michigan based companies I knew that the Hiller’s were a quality family. I have watched as companies let people go from their job due to hard times. I too have a Michigan based company we help groups and individuals with health insurance. I wish more companies would share this philosophy and pull together to promote Michigan based companies. Maybe we can help Michigan get out of this slump.

  3. this certainly is the market that pays attention, not only to what today’s issues might be, but also digests those thoughts and comes up with viable, effective means of taking a position that will be meaningful to many. Hiller’s continues to stand forth in my mind as the ONLY store of its kind that benefits from such enlightened, world-savvy leadership in place.

  4. Wow, Josh, what a comment. Thank you!
    You know, it’s not enough to do business and do it well. It is imperative, at least to me, that my business stand for something, that I operate my company guided by values and principles and very high standards – otherwise, it’s just another throw-away store.
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

  5. Mr. Hiller you are a man of courage and integrity. I applaude your social consciousness and willingness to do what is right when it would be finanically expedient to do otherwise. We have shopped at Hiller’s in Plymouth for ten years because of the high quality of your products and the courteous associates. You take a stand on things that matter and I appreciate that very much.
    Your products, your social awareness, your staff–a class act, sir.

  6. Hi Jim,
    I have been a Northville resident on and off 40% of my life and have been a Northville/Plymouth Hiller’s shopper for over 10 years.
    I have to admit I was a wee bit skeptical when I received the first Michigan product consumer driven sales flier in the mail. As a penny-pinching shopper who compares prices by calculating total item cost by weight, volume or quantity, my first thought was, “I don’t think I’m going to pay more for something just because it was made in Michigan.”
    Well, I am writing to let you know, that your campaign did have an affect on me. My large shopping list included honey and ice cream. I actually spent at least seven minutes comparing honey products and calculating the cost by volume. There was only one jar left on the shelf of a brand called Honey Bee Farms honey manufactured in Northville, MI! It cost just a few cents more per volume than another Michigan honey brand, but I thought, Northville! One of my neighbors may work there and, of course, I bought it.

    And now, Guernsey Dairy. My first job at 15 years of age was at Guernsey Dairy in the 1970’s. One hundred employees today, I think we averaged around 25-30 then. Of course, I bought Guernsey ice cream although it was a bit more costly than the special you were running that week. Yes, it does cost more but it is the best. I only wish I could figure out a way to ship a bottle of Guernsey buttermilk to my mom, Rosemary McLaughlin, who now lives in Florida. Many years ago, but still I remember her telling me not to forget to bring home a bottle of buttermilk from work.

    Just wanted to let you know, your Michigan campaign has made a difference to at least one shopper! Now, if you could only publish a shopper’s guide map of the store so I could send my husband to the store with a shopping list without him coming home telling me he couldn’t find “it”!
    Kate Van Valkenburgh

  7. Your comments, Bob and Kate, warm my heart. I’m just an old rooster doing business to keep keeping on – but shoppers like you make it all worthwhile. Yours truly, Jimmy

  8. Jim,
    Tonight was the first time ever that I have clicked on anyone’s blog to read it. And I have read your every word. I don’t know where to start… Perhaps a Thank You for all that you are doing and have done. You are to be commended for providing our communities with such wonderful markets where we can shop and buy quality items and local items. We live nearly across the street from your Northville store. We do “big” shopping now and then, but mostly do the European thing; buy fresh food to be prepared that day – how lucky are we?

    I have been trying to “buy local” most of my life, but during this past year I have realized how important that really is. Supporting our Michigan neighbors and their products is very important to my wife and me. We have lived in Northville for almost 10 years and have shopped across the street, buying local, supporting your store. More recently you have emphasized your support to local products and producers, which has made it easier for us to choose those products by using your tagging system.

    Your staff in the meat and produce departments is friendly, courteous, and always willing to go the extra mile to help out. Jim, I appreciate that very much. Around the time you remodeled your Northville store we made the change from shopping at a competitor two miles east of here, where we thought we could save a few cents. That was important then. What is important now is helping our neighbors, and their businesses.

    It’s good to clip coupons, go through the flyer (or online ads), and seek a good ‘deal’ – nothing wrong with that. And you provide good, competitive prices. But your blog has given me “the rest of the story” concerning knowing you – I trust you. And I trust you will continue to give your heart and soul to your business and to your customers. Thank you.

    If you pull up behind a truck with the license plate, BUYLOCL, wave, that’s me.

    Larry & Kathi Parks

  9. This letter is a long time coming. I have worked for Hiller’s markets going on seventeen years now. Its amazing how life just gets away from us. I wish I had written this sooner, so that I could have personally thanked Mr. (Sid) Hiller.

    I have had many ups and downs in my life. But I want to say that without the help of Sid and Jim Hiller I don’t know where I would be today.

    When I started working for the company I was just 21 years old. I was married with two children and working full time in the bakery department. When I was going through my divorce and was on my own raising two children, I went through some very rough times both mentally and financially. Mr. Hiller (Sid) and Mr. Hiller (Jim) both helped make sure that I made it back on my feet. That kind of personal attention in a company isn’t always found and I want to thank them both for all that they did for me to help me. They took a chance and believed in me. They pushed me to get the help that I needed so I could be a better mom, person, and employee.

    Whenever you take a chance on helping someone in need, it does not always have a good outcome. I am sure there were times when they were ready to say “this just isn’t going to work and we’ve done all we could.” Lucky for me, that didn’t happen. There help ultimately changed my life and set me on a new path. Even when I was at my lowest they didn’t give up on me and for that I am extremely thankful.

    My life has changed for the better over the years. I am now happily re-married and have four wonderful children. My oldest child is now in college, my seventeen year old is in high school and working, and I have two elementary age children. I myself started back to school in 2006 and I am now studying to be an elementary teacher with a grade point average of 3.98.

    I want to let the Hiller’s know that without there help, none of this would have been possible. Thank you so much for your help and faith in me, and giving me the opportunity to turn my life around.

    I only wish more companies and business owners could remember that people really do matter. Remembering sometimes people fall and make mistakes, but that doesn’t necessarily define who they are as a person. And perhaps with a little help they will be able to turn things around and be a better person. I hope that I have proved myself worthy of their help and consideration. I know that my children, parents and husband are as thankful as I am for all they have done.


    Tonya L. Edwards

  10. I was so glad when a Hiller’s opened up near me on Commerce Road. I regret that during the years I lived in AA/Ypsi I had not yet discovered your store. Every time I get your flyer, I’m impressed by the assortment of Michigan products you carry and the attention you draw to them. Thank you! Local food and supporting local growers, businesses, etc has become on of my passions and I am happy to see some the big guys helping make it easier for everyone to do.

    I have written a post about some of your campaigns on my blog. It’s the least I could do to help get the word out about the great things you do.


  11. Hello Jim,
    It’s me, Monique-founder of Al Dente Pasta, another local Michigan company. In preparing for the Michigan Taste Fest coming up May 2 and 3rd, I stumbled upon your blog. As you may know we sell to stores all around the country. I’ve alway recognized that Hillers is a very special and unique place but, until reading your blog, never had such insight to your leadership style and philosophy. Now it makes perfect sense. I am honored to sell our product in your store. Thanks for all you do to create win/win situations so that we can all play a part in using our energies, talents and resources, no matter how limited, to create an environment of success for all.

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